Poor Ram. We’re getting so used to seeing him drenched in someone else’s blood, it feels oddly disconcerting to see him without any tomato sauce splashed over his face.
In the opening episode, For Tonight We Might Die, it’s Fady Elsayed’s character who gets the roughest deal. Well, technically, it’s Ram’s girlfriend, Rachel (Anna Shafer) who’s worst off because she, y’know, dies horribly, but the point is: it’s natural for the second episode of Doctor Who spin-off, Class to focus on Ram’s grief. The Coach with the Dragon Tattoo does so wonderfully, and, not content with merely exploring the effects of death, further throws a dragon that skins people alive into the mix.
We were, of course, treated to this second episode straight after the show’s debut, and, based on past experiences, double-bills could’ve gone either way. The BBC replayed An Unearthly Child the following week because there were worries it didn’t get a big enough audience the first time around. That was good. Torchwood, however, showed two episodes 10 years ago in one night, and that was bad. Remember Day One? A sex-crazed alien went out looking for sex because sex? That one. Ironically, it turned many off the show.
It’s also the nearest point of reference for The Coach with the Dragon Tattoo, a story that really wanted people to know it wasn’t trying to attract the same crowd as The Sarah Jane Adventures. “This is Adult,” it said, loudly, as the blood hit the fan.
Fortunately, Class didn’t go “all Torchwood“, and making Coach available directly after For Tonight We Might Die was a smart move, allowing the series to properly shine. We won’t see what it’s fully capable of for some time, but for now, we can see it finding its own groove. That groove began in the first story, sure, but let’s face it, we were all a little distracted by the promise of the Doctor showing up. Cameos, however exciting, can taint the rest of the narrative. This was a chance to see the Doctor Who universe when the mad man in a box is off playing guitar endlessly.
But what was so good about The Coach with the Dragon Tattoo? It wasn’t the plot: while enjoyable enough, ticking just the right amount of boxes, it didn’t feel wrapped up well enough. Perhaps it’s because the story is nuts.
There’s a dragon hopping around Coal Hill, knocking people off intermittently. Coach Dawson (Ben Peel) also has a dragon tattoo that’s wandering across his skin. But wait: they’re not the same dragon. They’re lovers, and one, pushed through the bunghole of time, has got trapped on the teacher’s skin. The other dragon’s a bit miffed off, and kills people in order to feed his 2D mate’s bloodlust.
It’s a bit twisted, and confusing, and inexplicable. We don’t ever find out how said dragon got trapped under Dawson’s skin. It might’ve made a little more sense if the membrane of time/chasm/fracture/bunghole had opened up at the same time the Coach was walking in that exact spot – like a dimensional issue – instead of flinging the dragon down the corridor, probably damaging some lockers, and somehow merging them together.
Still, it did allow Ram some time to expand. This was his story. Tanya (Vivian Oparah) proved a worthy companion, but April (Sophie Hopkins) and Charlie (Greg Austin) were sadly just along for the ride. And what to say about Miss Quill (Katherine Kelly), apart from that she’s a joy? She brings comedy and viciousness, a highly-watchable combination. Moment of the week might go to her shouting at the OFSTED Inspector (Jami Reid-Quarrell, who notably played Colony Sarff in The Magician’s Apprentice/ The Witch’s Familiar, and the Veil in Heaven Sent). However, this might’ve been trumped by her mistaking his admission that he wants her as a sexual advance.
Nonetheless, this is what’s good about Class: its cast and its characters.
Writer, Patrick Ness uses enough clichés to get any English student monologuing pretentiously. But clichés and stereotypes have purpose. They’re well-worn because they work. Everyone has someone to care about, to sympathise with, to root for. April: the reclusive bookworm. Charlie: the one who doesn’t understand social norms. Tanya: the smart one. Ram: the popular athletic one. Sorted. Nonetheless, they’re a brilliant unit. That’s because they’re not two-dimensional, and because the cast are superb.
Fans were initially unreceptive to the idea of Class because they saw it merely as child actors, something many think let Doctor Who down throughout Series 7 and 8. But these aren’t child actors: they’re actors. Really great ones at that. It’s worth tuning in to see these four alone.
One cliché I’m not keen on is parental issues. There’s not one of the youngsters that doesn’t have some intrigue about their family: April won’t answer her dad’s calls, and her mum’s paralysed from the waist down; Tanya’s dad is dead; Charlie’s whole race is gone; and Ram seemingly only has a father.
(Another thing that always annoys me is unnecessary flashbacks. “We know you just saw the cleaner being skinned, but here’s a clip of it again.” Why? We understand why Ram’s reeling: we don’t need to see bloody deaths again and again. Just show us Fady acting his extra-long-sports-socks off.)
Ram’s dad, Varun Singh (Aaron Neil) is great, always attending his son’s football practises, dealing with Ram’s attitude, and picking him up every time he falls down. Let’s hope he comes back regularly.
Mr Armitage (Nigel Betts) is similarly great, but he probably won’t be back. Annoyingly. The manner of his death was particularly horrible; he was one of those characters you just like unconditionally. He’s witty, he’s approachable, and he’s far too nice to be headmaster. His willingness to protect the kids when a giant alien dragon was looming over just highlights what an awesome guy he was.
With his “the governors won’t like that”, and the Inspector turning out to be a robotic agent of the governors, maybe – just maybe – Mr Armitage will be back sometime. Pretty please? Even as an android?
And this is where I take some issue with Class. Right now, it’s not found the right tone. It’s excluding the family audience Doctor Who attracts, but doesn’t want to hit Torchwood levels of gore and sex – rightly so, I might add. It’s still doing gratuitous things to show people it’s all grown up. The gore this week didn’t really affect me, but I can understand if younger viewers were distressed by it all: “They’re not supposed to be watching it!” you might say. Don’t put the Doctor in the first episode then. There’s also a little swearing (in some cases called for), a pointless porn “gag”, and, by the looks of the Next Time trailer, some unwanted sex.
These all jar, but don’t actually stop your enjoyment of the episode. Because comparisons to Torchwood are fair. Even comparisons to The Sarah Jane Adventures are called for. In particular, if we compare Day One, Revenge of the Slitheen, and Coach, we can see one thing.
The Coach with the Dragon Tattoo is the best second episode of a spin-off series we’ve ever had.